Leading article: There is still time to avoid this nuclear folly


In theory there is something for everyone in the White Paper on energy that the Government unveiled yesterday. The renewables sector receives a carrot in the form of a boost to the tidal barrage scheme on the Severn estuary. The proposal for "smart" electricity meters in homes is a nod in the direction of greater energy efficiency. There is to be greater encouragement for biofuel and carbon capture technology too. But the group given real cause to celebrate yesterday is the nuclear lobby.

This will be remembered as the White Paper that proposed to clear the path towards a new generation of nuclear power stations in Britain. The reasons why this is deeply undesirable should be familiar by now. Nuclear power is prohibitively expensive. Construction costs have a history of spiralling over budget and past decommissioning bills have been vast. For these reasons, the sector requires huge indirect subsidies from the Government in the form of price guarantees, insurance support and help in dealing with waste. This form of energy production is also highly dangerous. Spent nuclear fuel is highly radioactive and no nation has yet implemented a long-term disposal solution.

Meanwhile, its advantages are overstated. The Trade Secretary, Alistair Darling, justified his proposals yesterday on the grounds that nuclear power stations do not produce carbon dioxide emissions. But considerable carbon emissions are produced by the mining of the uranium needed for the fission process.

Perhaps the greatest danger posed by this White Paper is that it would enable nuclear investment to crowd out investment in renewable energy. We must raise our national ambitions for renewable power production. There is no reason why, in the long term, a combination of wind, tidal and solar power should not take care of at least a half of our energy needs. The UK has the best wind resources in Europe. The other missing piece of the jigsaw is a proper international price on carbon emissions. With that in place, renewables will become a considerably more attractive investment.

This focus on nuclear energy also risks undermining efforts to tackle energy efficiency. It is crucial that we do not underestimate the importance of this front in the battle against climate change. A great deal of the energy used in Britain goes on gas heating. Nuclear electricity generation is simply not a viable alternative to this. But greater insulation in homes and offices can be. This highlights a need for a structural shift that this White Paper barely touches on. The fact is that the national electricity grid is remarkably inefficient. It is constructed around big, isolated, power stations. But microgeneration - in the form of combined heat and power plants - would be much more efficient.

Mr Darling insists a final decision on nuclear power will not be made until October. But the recent behaviour of the Government gives little cause for optimism. A 2003 White Paper described nuclear power as an "unattractive option". But in January 2006, the Government announced it was moving towards a nuclear solution after all. A court ruling in February found ministers guilty of failing to consult the public properly on the matter. Finally, this week the Government proposed to change the planning laws, with one eye on clearing the decks for a nuclear resurgence. The Government claims to be interested in an open debate, but acts as if it has made its mind up.

Tony Blair has become a strong nuclear supporter. But the position of his successor, Gordon Brown, is less clear cut. And it is Mr Brown who will be left with the job of paying for these dangerous follies. It is not too late for Britain to switch back to an environmentally friendly - and non-nuclear - energy track.

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